Sound Doctrine, or “Belief matters”

This is a short reflection sharing a bit of reading from my current session of The Academy for Spiritual Formation, a two-year program led by Upper Room Ministries of Nashville.

We are discussing “Protestant Spirituality” this week, and as the overview we began by reviewing the issues that the original Protestants were protesting within the Roman Catholic Church, highlighting some of the strengths those protests bring to modern spirituality. We also identified some of the perils, and one of the perils of the Protestant shift is that faith can be reduced to belief (or ideas).

I’ve often preached and taught about the difference, at least in my perspective, between faith and belief. Whereas belief has to do with ideas, faith has to do with relationship. The original Greek word used for faith in the New Testament can as readily be translated “trust,” which is a good synonym to use; faith is about trust in God, trust with Jesus – about relationship with the divine. When faith is reduced to belief in churches, your identification as a follower of Christ has more to do with you assent to particular creeds or opinions than it does with growing in relationship and trust.

Yet, beliefs do matter. I’m reading Streams of Living Water by Richard Foster, in which he shares about six primary streams of spirituality in the Christian family. In gratitude for the gifts of the “evangelical tradition,” Richard Foster writes:

…let’s thank God for the evangelical witness to sound doctrine. Beliefs are important. The gospel of the kingdom does have content. Now, the propositional truths of theology may not be everything, but they are something. We do not know many things about God and the life of faith, and many of the things we do know we probably understand imperfectly. But we do want to think as rightly about God as finite human beings can. We do seek to love God with all our mind. We do endeavor to rightly divide the word of truth. This is our intention. (p. 227-228)

I like this articulation, because it can be held alongside the conviction that our relationship with God is of primary importance, but our beliefs about God are also important. Not because we might be damned for them, but because, if we want to be in true relationship with God, we truly want to understand God as best we can!

Later, in sharing the potential perils of the evangelical tradition, Foster continues sharing about the importance of belief:

The first peril is the tendency to fixate upon peripheral and nonessential matters. This danger emerges when, out of a proper concern for truth and sound doctrine, people are unable to distinguish matters of primary importance from matters of secondary importance…

It is critical that we learn to discern between primary and secondary issues if we are to keep from majoring in minor matters. Old-fashioned common sense is sufficient to show us the difference in most cases, but the following principle can also help: the closer the issue domes to the heart of the Christ event – Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection – the more it becomes a matter of primary importance. Using that standard, we see that if we are discussing whether the book of Job is literal history or a literary device to teach religious truth, we are considering a matter of secondary importance – important, certainly, but secondary. But if we are discussing Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, we are addressing an issue of primary importance, for it is right at the heart of the Christ event. (p. 228-229)

Referring to the lesser issues of pious convictions, Foster concludes by sharing a quote I’ve often turned back to (though I’ve all-too-often credited Wesley, who was quoting Augustine):

I these matters the old saying, first articulated by Augustine, can serve us well: In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. “In essentials unity, in doubtful questions [or nonessentials] liberty, in all things charity.” (229)

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